For almost 25 years, neighbors came to Colonel Brooks' Tavern for those especially fluffy biscuits, for the club sandwiches they got just right and for one another's company over Bahama Mama drinks in the summertime.

Last night, several hundred of them gathered outside to cry and hug, to mourn the three employees killed in a robbery Sunday morning and to send a message to the killers that those bullets did not slay their sense of community.

"I'm offended. This not only happened to those poor people killed, but it happened to me, to our neighborhood," said Gwynne Kostin, a 17-year customer of the tavern who went to the vigil with her husband, two sons and dog.

Dishwasher Rodney Barnes, 47, of Northwest Washington; head chef Joshua Greenberg, 34, of Glen Echo; and cook Neomi Payne, 48, of Hyattsville were killed in the tavern as they prepared the brunch menu. An employee who escaped through the rooftop told police that he saw two men with ski masks enter the building at Ninth and Monroe streets NE in Brookland.

The street was packed last night with a diverse group of people -- pastors, children, families, college students from nearby Catholic University, black people and white people -- who said they will keep on going to the tavern. It was a vigil to remember the lives of those killed, and a defiant stand by a united community to resuscitate a favorite gathering place.

"I know this is always the place where you get a warm hug and a cold drink, and I'll keep on coming to this place," said Cherisse Gardner, who drives from Brentwood in Prince George's County to the only other place she calls home.

In the cold, wet night air, members of the crowd lit one another's candles and held hands while the Rev. Pam Goodwin Wiley told them to "join here together to banish the darkness from this place."

Edith Jones, Barnes's sister, held a stuffed rabbit tight in one arm and asked her brother's killers to "come forward, bow down to God and ask Him to forgive you. I forgive you."

But her brother said he felt differently. "I consider the guys cowards," Lewis Barnes said. "And we're going to put our trust in the chief and the guys working this case."

After they sang, many in the crowd engulfed relatives of Barnes and Payne, telling them stories of how they remembered the special biscuits Payne made or the jokes Barnes told. Employees of the tavern gathered in one corner, still shaking their heads.

D.C. Council member Vincent B. Orange Sr. (D-Ward 5) said he took the mayors of Baltimore and Philadelphia to the tavern, "the place where people come to shake hands, for fellowship, to network, to watch the ballgame."

Orange added: "We are the victims. . . . We need each other to restore that community, that tranquility, that sense of peace."

Mayor Anthony A. Williams (D) was at the tavern, a place that he, too, knows well. "You only have to be here once to understand how important Brooks is to Brookland," he said.

D.C. Police Chief Charles H. Ramsey, who also attended the vigil, said earlier yesterday that police had nothing new to report on the investigation. He said that extra officers were continuing to canvass the neighborhood and press informants for information.

Ramsey said investigators looking for similar robberies in the area "haven't matched anything" with the tavern robbery. But police cautioned that the tavern robbers might not have struck often or might not have robbed a business in the area, making parallels harder to spot.

Police also are doing background checks on employees and former employees of the tavern. So far, he said, "we don't have anything that would put anybody in a suspect category."

The D.C. medical examiner has released the cause of death for two of the victims. Barnes died of a gunshot wound to the head. Bullets struck Neomi Payne in the head and body. Information about Joshua Greenberg was not released.

Catholic University will hold a special Mass for the slain employees at noon today at Caldwell Hall Auditorium, 620 Michigan Ave. NE.

Staff writer David A. Fahrenthold contributed to this report.

Bryant Jones, 9, grandnephew of victim Rodney Barnes, takes part in vigil at Colonel Brooks' Tavern. Mayor Anthony A. Williams is in the background.Friends, family and co-workers of the three slain workers gather outside Colonel Brooks' Tavern in the Brookland section of Northeast Washington.Tavern employee Steven Clark, left, comforts Edith Jones, Rodney Barnes's sister.